By Mark Esper
“The word boondoggle comes to mind,” said former Silverton town trustee Laura Alsup.
She was addressing the San Juan County commissioners regarding the proposed Anvil Mountain affordable housing project.
“I have some very, very serious concerns about the smelter site project,” Alsup said Wednesday morning. She was referring to the 16-acre former smelter site near the entrance to Silverton acquired by the county six years ago.
Alsup expressed concern about the mounting cost to county taxpayers, noting the county’s grant application to put in water, sewer and streets for the proposed 50-unit subdivision included a commitment of $440,000 from the county in in-kind work and cash.
“That in-kind is not ‘Monopoly’ money,” Alsup said, and it amounts to a lot in fuel expenses and wear and tear on county equipment. “I think that’s about half your (annual) budget.”
Alsup suggested the county abandon the affordable housing project.
“What concerns me is the impact on the county budget will make it unaffordable for county taxpayers,” Alsup said. “You’re going to make the county unaffordable for those of us already here. I’ll be damned if I’m going to have my taxes raised so someone else can have affordable housing.”
County Board Chairman Ernie Kuhlman told Alsup that he shares her concerns about the costs involved.
“We moved a lot more material out there than we though we were gong to have to move,” Kuhlman said, “Now we have a huge pile of material to cap and some big holes to fill. We can’t leave it the way it is.”
County Administrator Willy Tookey defended the project, saying the county still intends to recoup at least most of its expenses through the sale of lots at the site, including a few higher-end parcels along the Shrine Road.
And he said the county is pursuing grant money to help pay for its share of installing infrastructure to the site.
Tookey said his job in overseeing the project at this point is all about “making sure it gets done.”
And he said private businesses as well as local government still see a strong need for the project.
He noted the county has been forced to pay deputies $400 a month for a housing subsidy.
“We went through how many people before we found a planner willing to move here?” Tookey said. “Housing has always been a big issue. I couldn’t buy a house today on my salary, I couldn’t even come close.”
Tookey said the county could charge as little as $20,000 per lot for the attainable and affordable units and still get most of its money back.
The county purchased the property from George Lancaster six years ago for $280,000. The county used $200,000 it received from Durango Mountain Resort as a housing impact fee to finance the purchase.
“I get a lot of flak about this,” said Kuhlman. “The only exit strategy I see is to fill the hole and make it buildable and decide what to do with it at that time. It has to have utilities. It has to be buildable. If we don’t get DOLA funds, we’re dead in the water.”
Kuhlman was referring to a $472,000 grant the county is seeking from the state Department of Local Affairs for insfrastructure at the site.
Commissioner Terry Rhoades, who sits on the board of Housing Solutions for the Southwest, a nonprofit agency developing affordable housing in the region, said that agency still wants to do something in Silverton.
“But if we don’t get the grant for the infrastructure, it’s just got to be covered up and flattened,” Rhoades said.
Kuhlman acknowledged the project has not gone smoothly.
“We are very scared down there in the aspect that the contractor may not be able to finish the job and there is a huge commitment to the county for in-kind work,” Kuhlman said. “What we ended up with is a maze of holes and a pile of semi-contaminated material. The question is where do we go from here. We can’t leave it the way it is.”
Kuhlman said “we’re a million (dollars) in and I see another million going into it,” although the lion’s share will be grant funding.
Kuhlman said the county “is in too deep to back out.
“We’re going to do the best we can to fill that hole,” Kuhlman said. “We need to make that a useable parcel. There is no other way.”
Kuhlman said the county plans to present the town with a footprint for infrastructure that will meet Town of Silverton specifications should the town at some point decide to annex the property.
“Their problem is it doesn’t generate enough revenue to provide services,” Kuhlman said. “We have some hard decisions to make.”
Alsup argued that “there is housing here if people want to come here and live. It may not be perfect.”
Kuhlman said the county must move forward at this point.
“It’s poor politics to dig a big hole then fill it with the same material,” Kuhlman joked. “We have an election year coming up.”